The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Born to Sing?

Earlier this week, in the middle of a conversation in which it was said that someone or another was “born to do” something or another, Parker interjected, “And Daddy was born to sing!” I hugged him, and even teared up a bit.

I’ve been singing to Parker for a while now, whenever it’s my turn to put  him to bed. It started with a couple of songs and as I added to my repertoire, grew into something special between us, in part because his favorite is one that has a special significance for me. But also because Parker’s requests brought me back to a love of singing that I haven’t pursued for a while.

One of my long-held, unfulfilled ambitions is to be a professional singer. I don’t remember when I discovered I had a voice. But, by the time I was in the second grade, I thought maybe I had something. Plus, I had the confidence of second grader, at the time.

I’ll admit, a bit of it’s personal. Besides being a writer, I’ve always been a singer. My first time on stage was in the second grade, when our school did it’s own version of The Wizard of Oz. I told my teacher I could sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So she asked me to sing it right there in class, and I did. I got the lead, which they changed from “Dorothy” to “Danny.” Actually, I shared the part with another boy who played it in the second act, because we resembled each other and the teachers thought it was too much for a kid to do both acts.

Actually, the story went something like this.

I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz on television once a year. and watching Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow.”

Something about that song resonated with me, though it would be years before I really knew why. But I learned it, and sang along with it until I knew it by heart. Back then, I probably had the same range as Judy Garland, in the movie, and probably imitated her singing more than a little. But it sounded good and felt good to me.

Then I heard that my second grade class was doing a production of The Wizard of Oz. I told my teacher that I could sing “Over the Rainbow.” She looked like maybe she didn’t believe me, but said, “Alright, sing it.” I did. The whole class was quiet. When I finished, the whole class laughed. (Or at least that’s what I remember.) At the time, it took a chunk out of my second-grader’s confidence, but now I think it was because I didn’t sing it like a second grader. I was trying to sound more like an adult, because I was trying to match Garland.

My teacher didn’t laugh, though. Instead, she had me sing it for the other second grade teachers. Probably because I didn’t sing it like a second grader. They listened, and didn’t laugh.

Instead, they took me to the music teacher and had me sing it for him. Again, probably because I didn’t sing it like a second grader.

And he changed the part from Dorothy to Danny, the ruby slippers to “ruby sneakers,” and cast me in the role.

I caught the bug then, and for a while wanted to do nothing but sing. And my voice did take me places. But that chunk of confidence I lost in the second grade never fully grew back, and when my voice changed, and I learned just where my voice fit into the music scene then (and, for that matter, now), what little confidence I had re-grown shriveled up.

Later, I went to a performing arts magnet school and majored in voice and acting, and did a lot of musical theater. Sometime during those years, puberty set in, and my voice changed. I didn’t realize at the time, though that my prospects as a singer had changed too. Not because I couldn’t sing. I got picked each year to be in the boy’s quartet, and we went to compete on the state level. There were probably two reasons I was chosen, both of which stemmed from my vocal shift from soprano to baritone. I discovered a natural gift for improvising harmony after my voice got too deep to sing along with the melody of the songs on the radio, and I learned how to adjust the quality of my voice to blend with whomever I was singing with. (Our chorus teacher would actually move me around in the baritone section, and put me where she felt a “blending voice” was needed.

It was then that I learned how narrow musical tastes were. Suddenly, in musical theater I realized the tenors got all the good parts. (As in opera, though at least in opera they often die before the final curtain. Plus almost everyone knows “The Three Tenors” but “The Three Baritones” are decidedly less well known, though probably no less talented.) When I turned on the radio, I realized most of the male pop vocalists were tenors, or what I now call “stratospheric tenors.” I rarely, if ever, heard voices that sounded like mine, even when I worked to extend my range with every vocal technique I could learn. At best I was a “bari-tenor,” who could manage the lower part of the range but stayed pretty close to the ground when the time came to soar.

Though I know the shift in musical tastes preceded American Idol, it has come to symbolize for me a narrowing of American popular music in a way that parallels the narrowing of American political discourse mentioned above. Listen to the contestants, and especially to the winners, and in terms of vocal type, style, and range they’re all pretty much the same, at least to my ear. And America votes for them. (Though how much their votes count is debatable, just as in politics.)

Don’t believe me? OK. Go back and pick some classic American singer from long ago. Now imagine them competing in American Idol. Do they win? My mental pick was Nat “King” Cole, and I don’t think he’d last more than a couple of rounds on American Idol. Neither would Frank Sinatra or Joe Williams. Not because they weren’t any good, but because they probably wouldn’t be able to cut it in an arena where pyrotechnics are valued over control, phrasing, and interpretation. Where style, in other words, is valued over substance, like Jill said earlier.

We don’t deserve another Nat Cole, and wouldn’t appreciate another one if we got him

Yes, I was a little embittered. After high school, I pretty much stopped singing in public, except for a brief sting in the men’s glee club in college. And a few other occasions. Even then, it was discouraging. Finding songs that matched my range proved difficult.

And then my musical knowledge became another kind of barrier. I remember, when I was in college, I got wind of a bar where a jazz band played on weekends, and had an “open mike.” It turned out the only person who stood up to sing was a young woman that the guys in the band seemed to know and like. That was intimidating, but I didn’t let it deter me. I eventually let them know I’d like to sing. I picked a song that I knew I could handle well (“Blue Moon), and got up to the mike.

That’s when the piano player (whom I pegged as “bitter”) asked me “what key” I sang in. Actually he asked me, and then said, “A real musician would know that.” Well, I didn’t. Hell, I almost never sang lead, but was always in the chorus (supporting the lead). Nobody cared what key I sang in, because I just sang with everybody else. I never heard him ask the girl singer that, but I guess she was prettier than me.

The band leader shut him up, and told me to go ahead and sing, and they’d pick up the key. I did, and they did. And when I was done, there was enthusiastic applause, and several people told me how well I’d done. Still, I never went back. Because I still wouldn’t know “what key I sang in.”

Years later, in D.C., I put an ad in the local paper, as a singer looking for musicians to sing with, more for fun than performing. I got one enthusiastic answer from a pianist who asked “What key do you sing in?” I admitted to not knowing, as I hadn’t performed in years, and never got a response after that. A while later, I went to a music teacher for the specific purpose of finding out “what key I sang in” and he actually told me it wasn’t that important, but figured out what worked for me on a few songs.

Still, the only singing I did for the longest time — besides in the shower — was at the occasional open mic or karaoke night. I even took voice lessons for a while, and found it helped a lot with my breathing, extended my range a bit, and even helped me find a falsetto where before I had not, because I couldn’t manage the “break” between my head voice and my falsetto. (I’m still a baritone. I break into a falsetto where a tenor just keeps going.) I felt a little more confident.

A gay bar in D.C. had an open mic night for a while, with a pianist who specialized in the American Songbook — which I’d since determined was the best kind of material for my voice. (Because if favored phrasing and lyrical interpretation over vocal pyrotechnics.) I sang two songs that night — “Being Alive” from the musical of the same name, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. People in the audience applauded enthusiastically, and a few actually told me I reminded them a lot of Bobby Short (a great singer to be compared to, but one whose level of skill and talent I only aspire to). The friend of was with that night looked at me afterwards and said “I had no idea you could sing like that.”

At karaoke, I stick to singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, though I’ll venture into doing some James Taylor, and even Elvis, if it’s the right song, and some more contemporary singers. I stepped up to the mic at an office party years ago, and did a rendition of Sinatra’s “All the Way,” and when I finished someone said “Where did that come from? That was a performance!” Since then, I’ve been more confident about stepping up to the mic at karaoke nights, and have even gotten adventurous with my song picks, since I found out I could do a good rendition of Matchbox Twenty’s “If You’re Gone.”

Once we got the Wii, I discovered a number of karaoke games, including some based on American Idol, which I promptly bought. At night, sometimes I head down to the basement, put in a game, plug in a microphone and sing for an hour or so. (Oddly enough, where some of the other games seem to make me sleepy, singing wakes me up. I’m more awake afterwards than when I started. My guess is all that breathing gets more oxygen into the blood.) Oddly enough, on the Wii, I win Amerian Idol, though I’m sure that — given my range — I wouldn’t stand a chance. Besides, I’m too old. Still, if feels wonderful to sing.

But I still do most of my singing for Parker. (Dylan, when I sing to him, grins and claps his hands.) I tend to pick songs that are either fun or inspiring for my “audience of one” (and, apparently, biggest fan). Here’s a rundown of the usual playlist.

Still, I find myself assuming that if I were going to do anything with music, I’d have done it by now, and that (at 40) I’m too old to start up again.

Then a co-worker (who’s heard me sing) came to my desk and insisted I watched the video of Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent.

One of the engines that drive a cynical world in general and reality TV in particular is sparked by the friction between self-perception and fact. There’s nothing quite like a stage and the hot spotlights of shows such as “American Idol” to make it clear to Everyman that his own measure of self-worth has just collided with a wall of three judges, and the results are messy blood sport for the viewing public.

Onto such a stage last weekend — for the show “Britain’s Got Talent” — came Susan Boyle, and the setup was ripe. The solid-looking Scot in clumpy shoes and a dress the color of weak tea strode forward with the purposefulness of a woman who was going to dig a furrow for spring potatoes.

She had a streak of playfulness and shyness and a broad swath of uncowering dignity. And pride. She wanted to measure her talents against those of Elaine Paige, a British legend.

The eye-rolling public and the three jaded judges were waiting for her to squawk like a duck.

When I first saw the You Tube version of her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” I kept looking for evidence of fraud in spite of the standing ovations of the live audience. From the first line of the first stanza, the confident yet angelic voice did not seem to match the workaday face and dark brows of the woman who was singing. It’s a song about the loss of innocence and optimism. I hate the song. I hate “Les Misérables,” the musical from which it comes. But I could not take my eyes off Susan Boyle, and I could not stop listening to her poised, pure notes, her perfect enunciation, her self-assured emotion. So I kept playing the song, and replaying it. I am usually front-row center in any audience of cynics, and I’m still not sick of it.

Sure, it would be nice if Boyle goes on to win the finals of this competition — and even to meet the queen. But to me that’s not the point. In a world that is sometimes rife with bloated résumés, stage mothers, fawning friends, self-adulation, narcissism and bedroom shelves holding too many meaningless trophies from middle school, here is a woman who took an accurate measure of her worth and put it to the test in the white-hot crucible of reality TV.

Who care’s if Britain’s got talent. Susan Boyle’s got talent, and for once talent mattered a little more than age or conventional good looks.

I have to admit, I cried. Sat at my desk this morning and cried. Because 47-year-old Boyle stood up knowing full well how she looked, how old she was, and what people would think and probably also say. And she did it anyway. What’s more, she sang a song that some of her 47 years had probably taught her something about — having dreamed in the dark, due in part to a world that says someone like her has no right to that particular dream.

Because just yesterday I said to someone that one of my dreams is to sing songs like those from “the American songbook,” with a small trio or quartet of musicians.

Like a younger co-worker this afternoon who muttered about being “sick of that woman,” and that “she not that great,” besides being old and “ugly,” or YouTube commenters who remarked that Boyle was proof of how “out of touch” the British were with today’s youth, not just because of her age and appearance, but because of her choice of song.

Sigh.

I’ll say it again.

Though I know the shift in musical tastes preceded American Idol, it has come to symbolize for me a narrowing of American popular music in a way that parallels the narrowing of American political discourse mentioned above. Listen to the contestants, and especially to the winners, and in terms of vocal type, style, and range they’re all pretty much the same, at least to my ear. And America votes for them. (Though how much their votes count is debatable, just as in politics.)

Don’t believe me? OK. Go back and pick some classic American singer from long ago. Now imagine them competing in American Idol. Do they win? My mental pick was Nat “King” Cole, and I don’t think he’d last more than a couple of rounds on American Idol. Neither would Frank Sinatra or Joe Williams. Not because they weren’t any good, but because they probably wouldn’t be able to cut it in an arena where pyrotechnics are valued over control, phrasing, and interpretation. Where style, in other words, is valued over substance, like Jill said earlier.

We don’t deserve another Nat Cole, and wouldn’t appreciate another one if we got him.

The women would fair only slightly better, but drop someone as unique as Billie Holiday or Judy Garland on the American Idol stage and watch how quickly they’d get the boot. Actually, they’d probably get featured in some of the episodes dedicated to laughing at the people who didn’t make it to Hollywood.

And just add this.

There are at least a couple of ways to sing a song. One is to dump a truckload of fireworks on top of it, light a match, and wait for the “oohs-and-aahs.”Another is to ease into it with enough texture and nuance to say to a someone “Hey, stop and listen to this.” That’s kind of what Sanjaya did for most of this. I found myself singing along (as much as I could, not knowing any Spanish), and I kept waiting for him to take it into the “stratospheric” range, at which point I’d have to stop. There was at least one perfect spot for him to do so in the song, in what I kind of take to be the typical American Idol style.

He didn’t. I’m not sure if it’s because that would have been out of his range, or because he just made a different vocal choice, but I was impressed that he didn’t. That’s something else about singers who don’t have “big” voices or ranges that reach all the way to Pluto and back (Billie Holiday comes to mind, again). They can’t rely on volume and range, so they have to find other ways to get you interested. That may be focusing on creating a particularly pleasing “sound,” a bit of improvisation, or a particular reading of the lyrics, or maybe some combination of all the above.

Actually, “bigness” of voice isn’t something Boyle has to worry about. Look at the song she sang. Now, go find someone who knows something about singing and ask them about that song. The women in my office who sing said, and I agree, that “I Dreamed a Dream” is not an easy song to sing. It’s covers a broad vocal range, and required some vocal leaps that require a good deal of control. There are places in that song you have to think about before you get to them, when you’re singing. (Kind of like having to look out for a sudden, sharp, but important turn that you’ll miss if you don’ t look out for it.) You’ve got to know how you’re going to handle it, and prepare for it several bars ahead of time.

And it is a song about “loss of innocence and optimism,” which makes it highly appropriate for an Idol-esque entertainment genre that seems design to wring both out of anyone not young enough or beautiful enough to have a right to either.

I’d like to see some of the younger singers of the “Idol” mold pull it off, and with pure technique, not the Idol-esque melismas that serve to draw attention away from lack of control or technique.

Melisma is the musical art of creating a run of many notes from one syllable. In the United States, singers in the African-American church popularized the vocal practice, which dates to Gregorian chants and Indian ragas. When Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin began singing popular music, they brought melisma to more mainstream audiences. Whether you love it or hate it, Whitney Houston’s hit “I Will Always Love You,” with its elongated “iiieeee-eyes” and “ooooeeeooos,” is a prime example.

American Idol contestants (and pop singers) sometimes abuse and overuse the technique in songs. At worst, they can fracture a word into a soulless slur of syllables that feels both alienating and groan-inducing. Plus you have no idea what word they’re singing.

And even those who can carry it off are a couple of decades away from knowing half of what Boyle probably knows what the lyric means by, “But there are dreams that cannot be, And there are storms we cannot weather.”

Mean while the negative commenters on YouTube do a good imitation of tigers in the lyric that “tear your dreams apart” and “turn your dream to shame.”

But they didn’t manage to do that to Susan Boyle. In fact, having sung and sung well, she was apparently satisfied enough to start walking off the stage, until she was called back. So they could tell her how she wowed them.

She wowed many more of us too, and not just because of her voice. But because there are some of us around Susan’s age what we thought were “dreams that cannot be.” At least until Boyle showed otherwise, and suggested to some of us that it’s still not too late.

Don’t look for me on a television stage anytime soon. But Susan Boyle has reminded me of some dreams of my own, and I might start moving towards them again.

I already have a performance to prepare for tonight, actually. It’s my turn to put Parker to bed.

2 Comments

  1. I didn’t even know that you were doing karaoke! Don’t give up, Terrance. Do it for yourself. Do it for you. *hugs*

  2. I do it on occasion, but not regularly. That’s why the karaoke games on the Wii have been kind of nice. We’ve had karaoke at some of our office holiday parties. And when we were on the R Families cruise, they had family karaoke every night. I went down after the kids went to bed. I even added a new song to my repertoire: Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.”

    That was especially fun. It was the last night of the cruise, and the harmonica player for the children’s music band liked it so much, she joined in with a solo during the bridge and accompanied me to the end.

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